Leading Your Wounded Workforce

At least 70% of American adults have endured a traumatic experience. That means a good chunk of your workforce is dealing with trauma in their background. Even if you don’t have the highest empathy, the impacts on employee focus, teamwork, and productivity—frankly, nearly every aspect of business—are clear. But you’re a leader, not a psychologist; what are you supposed to do about it?

Our guest, Stephanie Lemek, founder and CEO of The Wounded Workforce, has an answer. In this podcast, she shares the stats and her seven principles of trauma-informed workplaces.

Next time you’re in the office (or on a department Zoom call), pause. Take a look at all the people on your team. Then let this sink in: seven out of every ten of them has experienced at least one trauma.

Trauma is as unique as our fingerprints; each of us reacts differently to it. That’s why you often don’t recognize it in your staff, but it’s surfacing in many ways—from perfectionism to absenteeism—and those affect your daily business.

In our interview, Stephanie offers this framework for understanding trauma’s relevance in your workplace:

Understand the Impact.

Coping behaviors have a very real impact on employee performance, well-being, and productivity. Both perfectionism and absenteeism obviously slow down a project’s progress. But there are subtler effects for getting work done. It could be as simple as an employee who’s startled by sudden or loud noises and then needs a few minutes to calm down. Or, as happened in Maureen Metcalf’s (our CEO) MBA class, a boss pounding the table in anger triggers physical abuse memories for a person, who then “escapes” the room, missing the meeting and the day’s work.

Learn and Observe.

Go beyond pop psychology; educate yourself about PTSD and other effects of trauma. You can start quickly with Stephanie’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@TheWoundedWorkforce. As you learn about trauma’s complexities, observe your team with an informed eye as you understand their actions and reactions more deeply.

Launch Trauma-Informed Practices.

Now that you can see trauma’s effects, it’s time to reduce them. Tackle this in two broad ways. First, avoid re-traumatization. Minimize triggers by finding common stressors. This doesn’t have to be complicated; in Maureen’s example, a simple policy of no yelling or table-pounding during meetings would do the trick! Second, create safe spaces. The key here is to build an environment and culture where staff feel secure and supported.

Build on What Works.

Your workplace and leadership style are just as unique as all those buried traumas. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Experiment, and fully involve your team. Together, as you discover which of those practices mentioned above work in your particular arena, formalize them into policies and processes.

Take the Lead.

You ARE the leader, after all. You set the tone and light the spark for action in transforming your organization or department into a trauma-informed workplace. Share the educational resources that informed you; you’ll be amazed at the great ideas your team will have in building this mission. Stephanie has one important caveat, though: remember that you’re a leader, not a therapist. Shape your workplace and create a safe space…but leave treating the deep issues to psychologists.

Now that you’ve read this—and, ideally, listened to the podcast—pause again. Look once more upon the faces of your workmates, your friends, and your team. For seven of every ten people there, you’ve just taken the first step in recognizing their pain. As a trauma-informed leader, you really can make a difference.


This article was adapted by Dan Mushalko from our podcast episode Break the Cycle: The Role of Trauma-Informed Leaders.

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